WHEN he first started his work linking smoking with cancer 40 years ago, more than half the population smoked.

But thanks to the tireless endeavours of Sir Richard Peto, the long-term dangers of smoking are now known worldwide. Now only a fifth of people smoke.

He is one of two Oxford doctors to have scooped the top prizes at the prestigious BMJ Group Awards.

Sir Richard, co-director of the Clinical Trials Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit at Oxford University, was handed the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work into the causes and treatment of chronic disease.

He was praised at the awards for his tireless research into the avoidable causes of chronic disease, particularly smoking.

In collaboration with Sir Richard Doll, one of the first experts to link smoking with cancer, he demonstrated the long-term dangers of smoking and the benefits of quitting.

He has also contributed much to improvements in treatments which have helped to cut UK breast cancer deaths since the 1980s.

Sir Richard said: “The BMJ call it a lifetime achievement award, but it’s an inter-generational award, given for studies over more than 60 years of the causes and the treatment of chronic disease.

“These studies were started by Richard Doll, who brought me with him to Oxford 40 years ago, continued by me, and are now being carried forward by others.

“The main reasons that the risk of death before old age has gone down by more than half in the UK over the past 40 years is that lots of people have stopped smoking, and nowadays people at risk of vascular disease are taking drugs that work.”

Dr Ann McPherson, formerly a North Oxford GP, was named Health Communicator of the Year at the BMJ awards.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Dr McPherson was inspired to set up DIPEx, a website which patients could use to describe their experiences of health and illness.

She launched it with the aim of helping patients, families, and healthcare professionals benefit from the experiences of others.

Ten years on, and renamed Healthtalkonline, the site covers 60 different illnesses and health issues and receives two million hits every month.

During the ceremony, Dr McPherson was praised for the imaginative way in which she conveys the complexities and technical details of medicine to a wider audience and helps to change the way people think about important issues.

She was unable to accept the award because of ill health but her husband Prof Klim McPherson, and actor Hugh Grant, who is patron of Healthtalkonline, received it on her behalf.